Sentinel Species: Animals as Witnesses and Warnings

Sentinel Species: Animals as Witnesses and Warnings

by Chase Dimock

During the first months of the pandemic in Los Angeles, one of the biggest changes I noticed was the clearing of the skies. Without the infamous knots of LA traffic, the omnipresent smog dissipated, the skies became a crystalline blue, and air quality improved drastically. Then, animals began to creep back into the city from the hills. Fewer cars and crowds emboldened deer, bears, and even mountain lions to venture into the paved lands their ancestors once roamed. I watched coyotes cross Ventura Boulevard unafraid. Now that LA is starting to reopen, my hope is that we see the decontaminated skies and the flourishing of animal populations during the pandemic as a sign of the resilience of nature and a preview of what we can achieve if we committed to reducing our impact on the land.

I remain cautiously optimistic, though, as many of the animal witnesses in my first book of poetry, Sentinel Species, can attest, humanity has not always been adept at interpreting the harbingers of nature, or capable of mustering the will to address the damage we cause. Defined broadly, a sentinel species is an organism whose behavior can alert humans to a danger that we ourselves are unaware of. Because animals possess heightened senses humans lack, they can often detect the coming catastrophe of an environmental disaster we created. My sentinel species poems explore how animal behavior and the environment as a whole, along with our personal relationships with individual animals, speak to repressed or ignored aspects of our collective humanity.

The most famous of these sentinel species are coal mine canaries used to detect the odorless presence of carbon monoxide. When a canary fell stiff as a board, feet in the air in its cage, miners knew it was time to evacuate. My poem about the canaries takes us back to when they were replaced by modern carbon monoxide detectors in the 1980s and imagines them extending their professional craft as humanity’s alarm bell to other looming threats of the decade.

A new sentinel species to emerge in the last few years is the frozen iguana in Florida. Recent winters have brought unusually cold weather to the tropical climate, causing iguanas to instantaneously hibernate, stiffen, and fall from trees. In “The Falling Iguanas,” I examine Florida lawns littered with frozen iguanas as a harbinger of climate change and the fate of invasive species in a land that cannot sustain them.

My initial interest in writing a collection of poetry about animals and our relationship with the environment began a few years ago when I found a children’s book on Christopher Columbus and the animals he encountered on his voyage. A page about parrots in the Carribean sparked a curiosity for me: another species capable of recording what was said and speaking it aloud witnessed the conquest of the Americas and the exploitation of the people on that land. Two parrots were shipped from the Carribean to Spain as gifts for Queen Isabella. They arrived just in time to see the Spanish Inquisition.

This historical footnote inspired one of my earliest poems from the collection. “The Inquisitor’s Parrots imagines what the birds saw as witnesses of two atrocities against humanity. Obviously I took some creative liberties with the parrots, but it is true that a Spanish general wrote about an occasion when parrots had alerted the native people to the march of the conquistadors in time to flee. The parrots stand in for all witnesses to history whose suffering may have garnered a marginal notation, but was never recorded in their own words.

This theme of animals as witnesses to human history guides many other poems, including an allusion to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the ill-defined line between the feral and the domesticated in “Spilt Milk,” a hippopotamus who survived the Berlin Zoo firebombing during World War II, the vulture from Kevin Carter’s famous photo during the Sudan Famine, and the rejected plan to breed “ray cats” that glow when exposed to radioactive waste.

In addition to animal species as observers of the ebb and flow of civilization, I also explore my personal relationship with animals, including my pets, my place in the environment, and how the mythology of animals informs how I understand (or fail to understand) nature. In “Coming Out to a Spider” I think back to my teenage angst in grappling with my sexuality, exposing my most private desires and struggles witnessed by the spider in the corner of my bedroom.

In “The Blobfish,” I riff off the fact that the blobfish we see in photos does not actually look like that in its own habitat. When we pull it from its pressurized depths, it bloats beyond recognition. I imagine that blobfish as a pet in scenes from my childhood through adulthood in which I too felt out of my own depth and was judged based on the shape I took when dragged into someone else’s environment.

While I draw heavily on the symbolism of animals, I am also critical of how I can sometimes fall into the trap of casting them in gold and forgetting the heart beating beneath. In “Shooting the Janitor,” I was inspired by how learning about campus birds from the biology students at my college changed the way I viewed vultures. Pop culture has branded them as whirling harbingers of doom, when in reality they clean up the dangerously toxic corpses of animals that humans are mostly responsible for.

I lay out my aspirations for a human imagination of animals that balances the spirit of the fantastic with the responsibility of respecting the real conditions of animals in “Imitation Unicorns.” When I first held my infant niece and saw the unicorns on her onesie, I thought about the moment when she will learn that unicorns aren’t real. I don’t want other animals to feel diminished in comparison to the mythical unicorn, but I also don’t want to limit her imagination and sense of wonder. In her, I see the hope of finding inspiration and spiritual connection with animals without ignoring the mud and muck of nature, which isn’t very fantastical but remains our vital responsibility for respecting the rights of animals and the environment.

Although most animals cannot speak, their behavior explains the effects of our own human behavior on their lives. The difficulty is in interpreting their reactions in of themselves instead of seeing only what pertains to human interest. While we can learn a lot about humanity from studying the behavior of animals, this endeavor often comes at their expense; even circus elephants and lab monkeys know what it’s like to be a guinea pig.

Sentinel Species is available at Bookshop.org and many other online book retailers.

Jareen Imam author photo

Chase Dimock lives among mountain lions and coyotes in an undisclosed location between Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. He serves as the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine and makes his living teaching literature and writing at College of the Canyons. His debut book of poetry, Sentinel Species, was published in 2020 by Stubborn Mule Press. His poetry has been published in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Faultline, Roanoke Review, New Mexico Review, and Flyway among others. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship in World Literature and LGBT Studies has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, Modern American Poetry, The Lambda Literary Review, and several edited anthologies. For more about Chase, visit chasedimock.com.

Skein to Skein

Skein to Skein

by Charles Valle

Content Warning: Death or dying; pregnancy loss.

Minutes after we directed the doctors to turn off the ventilator, we knew our limited time with Vivian was ending. Certain moments remain a blur. The nurse disconnecting monitors and tubes, say, or swaddling Vivian’s lifeless body in the hot air balloon–patterned hospital blanket. Screen memories, perhaps.

Other moments remain quite vivid—the pathways to recall so well-travelled, they will be with me until my death. I recall the urgency of finding my camera to make sure I captured photos of my wife, Kathleen, holding Vivian for the first time. I recall the awkward transfer, the anticipation of what holding Vivian would feel like. And I held her. And I recall my surprise at how heavy 8 pounds, 3 ounces felt. Her full dead weight. Her head on the crook of my right arm. I recall trying to remember every feature of her face knowing I would never be able to hold her again.

While I was holding Vivian, a well-meaning nurse asked us if we wanted to have a harpist come and play in the room. I remember being so confused by the question. It was so far out of the possibilities we had been preparing for during the previous nine months. We had not considered that variable in the calculus of parenthood: a harpist playing in a cramped hospital room for my dead daughter. I may or may have not lost my shit at that point.

There were lots of other questions that day from the NICU doctors and nurses that I cannot remember responding to. I was clearly in some catatonic state. And, much as in the subsequent months after Vivian’s death, I recall watching people’s mouths move and attempting to process their words and, as if escaping my body, I would see myself attempt to answer. One of the questions concerned Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a remembrance photography organization, and whether or not we wanted them to take photos of Vivian. We must have answered affirmatively, because a week or two later we received black and white photos of Vivian—even more beautiful and heartbreaking than my jagged memories.

For months after, I would stare at those photos every day. At night when I couldn’t sleep, or staring out windows during work, daydreaming, the photos would haunt me and appear as if drawn by Caravaggio—severe contrasts of a fading reality with such a clear focus on the different parts of Vivian’s body.

My first attempts at writing about Vivian, and the grief work I was undergoing, were abject failures from a creative production perspective. Much like the initial impulse to find my camera and capture moments, my initial poetic instinct was to capture: the loss, the rawness of the trauma, the muddled mess of emotions that I couldn’t quite process, etc. The writing was therapy. My creative output consisted of fragments, broken lines, phrases unturned.

The years following Vivian’s death were, unsurprisingly, the most difficult of my life. Kathleen and I resolved to move forward. Moving forward meant integrating back into normal society—all the trappings and gestures of living in the United States during late stage capitalism. It meant negotiating the twenty-first-century spaces as a BIPOC poet: assigning, interpreting, and prioritizing meaning to the partisan theatrics, the accelerating wealth inequality fueled by Quantitative Easing, social media’s unveiling of racial injustices, the affects of disruptive technologies, the effects of climate change.

Moving forward also meant trying to have children again. We were very fortunate. We’d never experienced as much relief as we did when hearing the cries of our second child, Ivan. By the time our daughter, Olive, was born, our integration back into normal society appeared seamless. Most people had no idea just how broken we were.

Like most working poets, I struggle to find time to write. Scribbles on receipts, napkins, the marginalia on work notes, texts to myself, email drafts. The skeins of poetic fragments continued to pile up. In my upcoming book, Proof of Stake (Fonograf Editions), there’s a playful nod to Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12 where I talk about my poetics of grief: “An integral / Lower limit memory / Upper limit intertextuality.” In thinking about grief and loss, I was always interested in the concept of displacement, area, and volume. Can we quantify grief? What are grief’s boundaries?

My personal experience with grieving taught me that my emotional responses occurred in waves. Similar to the stock market or equities charts, my grief would encounter resistances and supports. Up, then down, ad infinitum. There were long periods of consolidation. Supports breaking down. Higher highs. Lower lows. It’s maddening. It’s also completely fascinating to me.

Below is an excerpt from my elegy to Vivian. Knitting and weaving from various skeins, I ended up with a fifty-nine-page elegy that ruminates on a wide range of subjects, from the effects and winding paths of disruptive technologies, such as paper and cryptocurrency, to critiques and observations of art movements, diasporas, social unrest, and the history of the Philippines.

from Proof of Stake

 

And the portability of grief is such a wondrous thing
The transit so efficient
Every circumstance so easily succumbing
To tenebristic splendor
The unsettling realism of the eyes you never opened, Vivian,
The lifeless hand that could not grip my trembling fingers
Follow me across continents
From Europe to Asia, the dark
Background persists with single sources of light
Shining on different body parts
One day, it is your perfectly-shaped eyebrows
The next, the meconium spilling out of your nose,
Your mouth. I close my eyes in Cambodia and see
Your hands. I wake up in Iceland and the light focuses
On your chin, your lips. In Singapore, I burn incense
And imagine your voice. In the Philippines, I scatter
Your ashes on the leeward side of hope
And reflection, the prismatic nature of remains
Ashen and oaken, bits of bones
So far removed from any sense of
Purpose or structure
Mourning in residue
The structures of grief pressed
And dried. Textures so indecipherable
They disorient with ease
Emotional glyphs asperating sullied surfaces

Jareen Imam author photo

Charles Valle was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to California when he was seven years old. He holds an AS in Chemistry from Saddleback College, a BA in English from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in Poetry from University of Notre Dame. Since 2006, he has served as one of the Poetry Editors at FENCE Magazine. Charles currently resides in Portland, OR, where he works as a Change Manager for Nike as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC). His first book, Proof of Stake, will be published by Fonograf Editions later this year.

Top photo by Munro Studio on Unsplash

 

Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Indiana Writers Center, Poem a Day Challenge, April 2020

Rachel Sahaidachny, Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, has shared a writing prompt each day this month. The participants post their poems in a closed Facebook group, and the responses focus on encouragement, not criticism, constructive or otherwise. I’ve appreciated the challenge to write regularly and the opportunity to think (and sometimes vent) about current events. Here are some of the prompts that worked for me and the poems that I wrote. The prompts—and my commentary—are in italics.

#4 Is there an object in your house that used to belong to someone else? Write a two-part poem. Part 1 about the object’s “before you” time. Part 2 about the object’s “now.” Try to incorporate one rhyme in each part.

When I met your mother, she was perched on your off-white couch while you sat on the matching love seat. Close to 90, she had just returned from Florida and the second husband she’d outlived to care for you during chemotherapy. When you felt like crap, you napped on that couch under heavy blankets, clutching the one on top knitted by your mom. When you felt well enough, you leaned against the big cushions, choosing poems from a lifetime of writing. I sat on the loveseat and helped you make a book. Only once I said your granddaughter will remember you with these words.

This doesn’t end with a funeral. We finished the book, you started a clinical trial for immunotherapy, and now you smile when you see the commercials for the drug that cured you on TV. I smile too, because I’m grateful, really, but sad that mild dementia is taking you away piece by piece only a few years later. You gave me the couch and love seat when you could no longer live alone. Now you’re locked down in assisted living— not like when Grandma was on a locked ward so she wouldn’t go outside and wait for the bus to New York City— but because of this damn pandemic. The staff bring trays to your door at mealtimes, and that’s it, no other human contact. Crossword puzzles have lost all appeal. I sit on the off-white couch and talk to you until the battery in your hearing aid begins to die.

#5 It’s Sunday, which means we will explore a particular form. Prompt for today is to write a Nocturne—a poem that is set in the night (usually midnight).

#6 Write a poem using anaphora. Anaphora is a technique that uses a repeated phrase to begin lines throughout the poem. It doesn’t have to begin every line.

I was annoyed with myself for not writing for three days, or so I thought…

Nocturne: Procrastination

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” -Arundhati Roy

Monday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Can’t write a poem about the night in daytime, am I right? I thought the dark and cool air would birth the words. Sometimes trapped, sometimes rushing out. But I tripped over myself, never made it to the stoop. Even now, I should be doing something else.

Tuesday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Excuses. Too easy to fall into my latest thrill. My great escape. Work is hard. People are dying. A man I knew died alone. Excuses.

Wednesday Same. How do I let this happen? Shame. Everything I put off. Fine. I’ll write the night poem right now. Nocturne: liminal. Imagine myself on the threshold of my house. Between dark and light. Inside and out. Neighbor and stranger. Wave to them all.

After writing the Wednesday stanza, I realized that it was only Tuesday, so I didn’t feel so bad about getting behind.

#7 Write a poem using language from a text message or email which you recently received or sent.

How are you doing? Feels like I’m surfing a wave of uncertainty

The key to surfing: convincing yourself you are not going to fall into a wave, get lost.

Don’t think about tumbling, choking on water, the board smacking your head.

Focus on the blue curve below you. It could go on forever.

#8 Pick a favorite song, or one you like, listen to it, and write.

I chose the cover of “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, specifically the haunting music video.

Times so hard, gotta start with happy endings, when ship has almost reached shore. Surely they’ll save the stranded people—lonely, isolated—at least ten thousand. How are they so alone when they’re together? How do they write music—parchment, fountain pen—yet never play or sing? When sailors first saw them—kneeling, hunched—they stared. Why hands and knees, captive, surrendered?

Sailors, too, came from silent lands, journeyed to the ship, alone, on foot, through flat lands, forests. Each carried an instrument, salvaged from earth or fire. Harp, guitar, piano, drum. The keys twisted, burning. They pulled them from the flames. Let the dirt run from the guitar. The sound was still true.

#9 Chose a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) and write a 10+ line poem with words that have only that vowel in them. For your poetic terminology, a poem which excludes one or more letters is called a “lipogram.” A poem which excludes all vowels but one is called “univocalic” (from the Latin for one-voweled).

I challenged myself to write a poem using words with only the vowel U. And this happened.

Mr. Trump

Ugh, just shut up. Guru? Untruth. Humbug, numbskull. Truth. Fuck up. Sputum glut. Bunkum hub. Lustful skunk.

#11 Use the last line of one of your poems as the first line of a new poem.

I chose the last line of poem #8.

Rescue Guitar

The sound was still true despite the batter and dent. She didn’t fret. Her fingers coaxed notes around the sprung string. Like a poet writing without some common letter, improvising around absence made her better.

#14 Select 10-12 words from a poem (or from a couple poems) you admire and use them to create a new poem. Try to have a variety of word types (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.) in your selection.

I didn’t get inspired for #14 until I saw the prompt for #15. I chose “Notes to Myself During National Poetry Month, 2020” by Dante Di Stefano, which was published in Rattle as part of the Poets Respond feature on April 14, 2020.

I wrote down ten words from this poem and numbered them. Whenever I needed a push, I asked my husband to choose a number between 1 and 10.

#15 This is a prompt from Poets & Writers Magazine:

“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?”

The familiar riot in my mind. Sometimes I wish I saw the world without these painful shades of gray. Eleven years of red leaves falling, cherry blossoms tarting up the street, and still I’m juggling working for the man with working on the inside of his damn jungle. Sweating so long under this corporate canopy, I forget the sky is not beneath me. Sky, Tracy, it means above and blue, remember? Symptom of a mental pandemic: if the strings of my guitar snapped daily, I would check the obvious. A rough fret, a burred edge, even a pick too heavy for the strings. I might get hooked on playing four instead of five, but I’d know that anytime I could replace the damn thing and let my instrument sing as it was meant to. But no, me and my front row seat for the crisis of corporate America. Big surprise: slashing staffing means more rushing, more mistakes, more work, less time to think my God what have we done. Some sleep. More coffee. Letting legal addictions sprout like green weeds. Nothing to be done but tell myself Friday’s payday. Perhaps I’ll think of something money can buy to spend that precious paycheck on.

#16 Write a poem about the story of your name. Things to consider: What do you know about the source of your name? What name/nickname have you taken on and why?

Again, two prompts combined in my head and I got a poem.

#17 The cocoon is a place of transformation. What happens there is a mystery. If this time is your cocoon moment, what transformations are occurring? What might emerge? Alternatively, work with the Phoenix mythos: the burning down; out of the ash a new creature is born… rises. Maybe your poem has space for both.

Dead Name

Phoenix, must you leave your nest in ashes to be reborn? I prefer the torn cocoon, you with monarch wings. This isn’t about what I prefer, is it? Your past must be burned. You fill your nest with baby pictures, toss in every reminder you can find, even that old photo of you in a lady’s hat, which I would think would make your new self smile. This isn’t about what I think. But when the ashes cool, I will search them for a keepsake.

#18 What do you know about water?

I liked that this prompt wasn’t just “write a poem about water.” It made me think about water—and knowledge—in a different way.

What do you know about water? It runs, but it is not afraid. Rushes without hurry.

What do you fear about fire? The heat will be wasted, flames leaping.

What do you expect from earth? Rock will smash scissors, scissors will slice paper, paper will wrap rock.

What do you assume about air? It will always be there.

#20 a prompt from Jessica Reed

Reverse-engineer a poem: take a published poem that you love and remove all the nouns and verbs—all the content. You should be left with a skeleton of a poem, just a syntactic structure (you might have to remove a few adjectives or adverbs as well—whatever it takes to get to the skeleton). Now, start filling in the blanks with fresh content. The supplied syntax will guide your poem in unexpected directions. If that isn’t happening—if you’re making too much “sense,” try listing words on a separate sheet of paper and plugging them in “Mad Libs” style. You can also mine for fresh vocabulary in a book that you wouldn’t normally read, perhaps from another discipline.

The poem I chose is “Separation,” by W.S. Merwin.

Our honesty betrays us like a stream underground: cracked pavement, flooded grass.

#21 Choose a spice, herb, or flavor. Do a bit of research—does it have medicinal qualities? A history? Where does it come from? If you have some on hand, spend a bit of time smelling or tasting it, and allowing images, memories, thoughts to come up and write them down. If not, imagine the smell or taste—what does it make you think of? Can you cobble a poem out of these notes? Does one of the notes trigger a poem?

Cream of What Now?

It’s not the oldest item on my spice rack— that would be the allspice from 1997. But Cream of Tartar is the weirdest. It is no fishy sauce but an acidic powder that makes mile-high meringues and boosts the chewy tang of snickerdoodles. Mixed with vinegar, it cleans stainless steel like nobody’s business. Homemade Play-Doh would be lost without it. Video: the many benefits of cream of tartar. Watch as it stabilizes whipped cream and polishes copper. (Add lemon juice in a 1:1 mixture. Rub on, rinse off.) Herbs and spices come from plants, but cream of tartar comes from the crystalline crud that builds up inside casks as wine ferments. It’s not creamy like dairy, but think of creaming as whipping egg whites to a high foam. Are you dismayed when boiled veggies lose their color? Just a pinch of this miracle shit will help your beets stay bright. Science! Science for the win!

#22 Since it’s Earth Day, I thought we could explore ecopoetics. Ecopoetry is poetry with a strong ecological emphasis or message. Some suggested questions to ponder: How do you try to reduce your impact on the environment? Do you ever feel guilty about what, or how much, you throw away? What could you live without? Ecopoetry often uses environmental elements in the poem, pastoral or nature details. It is poetry produced as a result of an environment and humans in the environment.

#23 Docupoetry is poetry created out of primary source materials such as news articles, interviews, medical records, diaries, court transcripts, and other public records. Either utilize direct lines from a source (or more) and rearrange them, interpret meaning through your own words, or use a mix of both approaches.

There’s poetry online. I mean poetic language in unexpected places. For my spice poem, I googled “list of spices” so that I could have a bunch to choose from. I read a few articles about cream of tartar, and all of them had some terrific turns of phrase. I ended up copying several things right into the poem. And today we’re writing docupoetry! I wasn’t feeling the eco-poem yesterday, but today’s prompt reminded me of Holly Haworth’s March 2020 essay “Undefined Waters,” which has some moving thoughts on language and our environment—as a result of Trump’s recent gutting of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It’s easy—too easy—to be seduced by language, to stop thinking critically and just love the sound of words.

Rill and runnel. I used to think of creeks and brooks when I saw those words. But a rill is something more specific: an ephemeral stream, a trickle of water that springs up after heavy rain.

Once rills were all over the poetry map, sonorous, easy to rhyme. Mismanaged agriculture causes most rills today. Sliding hillsides, preventable erosion. A gully is an overgrown rill.

Holly Haworth wrote about the ephemeral streams and semi-permanent puddles that grace her land in Georgia during winter rains. Rills and runnels as they were meant to be, yet may not be for long.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects waters, but Trump & Friends have tightened that definition, excluding headwater streams and wetlands. Our waters will burn again, said an attorney, referring to the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

#24 choose a cliché and write a poem which makes it fresh

I couldn’t resist starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which challenges the love clichés of his time.

Poem in which My Husband Looks a Bit Lame in Comparison to Today’s Weather

Shall I compare you to a warm spring day during a pandemic? You’re cute, but wind and sun and sky are vital to my mental health. Redbuds are my favorite flowering trees— The contrast of pinkish-purple flowers against dark bark, especially after rainfall, rocks my world. I smile when you waggle your eyebrows at me, but a warm and windy day inspires me to write after something of a drought. To be fair, I’ve written many poems because of you, but mostly to express frustration. Nature’s working hard. Even the phlox is exerting itself, though it appears to be lazing around like ground cover. You worked six hours today, but I don’t think you’ll clean the litterbox. You could surprise me, though, like an unpromising forecast that turns into a lovely day, or a curve flattened by a Republican governor who’s quick close the state—so much better for being unexpected.

About Tracy Mishkin

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She been nominated twice for a Pushcart — both times by Parody — and published in Raleigh Review and Rat’s Ass Review.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Poetry Month Spotlight: Rita Feinstein

Poetry Month Spotlight: Rita Feinstein

The Poetics of Joy

I’m half-asleep in the Bishop’s Garden on the south side of the Washington National Cathedral. The 3 p.m. light bathes the limestone in gold, and the flowerbeds pulse with color. My husband and I sit on a bench in direct sunlight, our hound mix sprawled at our feet. I close my eyes and marvel at how good I feel—not thirsty, not hungry, not anxious to cross something off my to-do list.

I open my eyes again and see an elderly couple sitting on a nearby bench. I’m reminded of the healing garden I could see from my fourth-floor hospital room last June. I was never allowed to visit; the nurse said I didn’t have enough time, but it was another couple hours before the doctor discharged me.

These dark memories are mildly sickening. The garden has its own powerful influence, though. It pours another wave of sunshine and flower-fragrance over my head, and now I wonder why I bother dwelling on negative thoughts at all.

Because I’m a poet, that’s why. On some level, I’ve always believed that poetry is the alchemical practice of transmuting trauma into art. Once, when I was hallucinating from pain, I felt a small thrill at this new writing material. When I was sunken into my hospital bed, I typed rhyming phrases into my Notes app with the hand that wasn’t encumbered by an IV. Poetry has gotten me through an eating disorder and a toxic relationship, and at some point I started worrying that once the trauma dried up, the poetry would too.

I wonder why I bother dwelling on negative thoughts at all.Because I’m a poet, that’s why. On some level, I’ve always believed that poetry is the alchemical practice of transmuting trauma into art.

I finished processing my eating disorder when I was nineteen, but I kept writing about it for years afterward. There was no urgency, no catharsis, in these newer poems. I had convinced myself this is what my audience wanted, and yes, some of these poems were published, but at some point it felt disingenuous to continue writing them.

One night in grad school, in the name of pure escapism, I wrote something I had no intention of submitting to workshop. It was the stuff of YA fantasy novels—a selkie-hunting pirate king, a misanthropic bad boy, a star-crossed romance. The first draft was messy and overstuffed. “Is this more than one poem?” I asked my roommate. “Is this two poems? Is this forty poems?” Forty-eight, to be exact. It was the first poem in what would end up becoming my thesis manuscript.

Writing my thesis was an exercise in pure joy. Instead of scrounging for trauma crumbs, I wrote a sprawling ode to everything I love—dragons and wolves, fairytales and mythology, Labyrinth and Outlander. After wasting so much time and emotional energy laboring over poems that didn’t want to be written, I had finally (re)discovered my voice.

Writing my thesis was an exercise in pure joy. Instead of scrounging for trauma crumbs, I wrote a sprawling ode to everything I love—dragons and wolves, fairytales and mythology, Labyrinth and Outlander.

Three years later, I got sick. First I lost my appetite, then I came down with a fever that wouldn’t break, and it was only when I passed out at the bus stop that I acknowledged something was wrong. Three hospital-bound days later, the something had a name. Crohn’s Disease. A very un-glamorous inflammation of the terminal ileum, a body part I didn’t even know I had.

It was a couple months before I was well enough to write again. Then, one day, the words started pouring out of me. I channeled all my frustration into a 2,000-word story, and I was done. The whole process was as straightforward as turning a faucet on and off.

Skeptical that I had done enough processing, I decided to write a poetry chapbook about my illness. The poems didn’t come easily. Recently, I gave one of them to my writing group. On a craft level, we had a very productive discussion. On an emotional level, I felt like I was back in the colonoscopy room.

It’s only now, in the Bishop’s Garden, that I remember what I somehow forgot—poems can be joyful. No one is forcing me to re-live painful memories every time I open my notebook. I don’t have to compromise my vision to please an imaginary audience.

No more hospital poems. From now on, it’s all dragons and goblin kings.

About Rita Feinstein

Rita Feinstein is a DC-based writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in Grist, Willow Springs, and Sugar House, among other publications, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best New Poets. She received her MFA from Oregon State University.

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National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Poetry Month Spotlight: Shaindel Beers

Poetry Month Spotlight: Shaindel Beers

Artist Statement

Happy National Poetry Month, and thank you for inviting me to be a part of your celebration. One present I’d like to share with everyone is the work I have curated and published as the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. We’ve been around since 2003, so you’ll definitely have enough poems to read for National Poetry Month.

Our most recent issue can always be found here, and in the spring issue we have poems from J.L. Wall, Sage Ravenwood, Kassandra Montag, and T.J. Moretti. In our winter issue, we had the good fortune to have poems from Hannah Beilenson, Ashley Inguanta, Amy Williams, and Kristin Baum DeBeasi.

If you click on the “Poetry” archive and spend some time there, you’ll learn far more than I could teach you by writing an essay myself. Please spend some time clicking through, share whatever you’d like online, and if you’re a poet yourself, send us some work!

I encourage you all to try writing a poem a day as well, though I know it’s challenging. For that reason, I’ll share some poems that I wrote using prompts from Robert Lee Brewer’s Poem-A-Day challenges at “Poetic Asides.” Here are the guidelines, so you can take part yourself.

When I wrote the poem, “The Coffee of Love,” the prompt was to write a poem with the title “The _____ of Love.” Here’s what I came up with:

The Coffee of Love

The coffee brought to you in bed. The coffee
on the porch, as you listen to the day progress
from dove-song to starlings to sparrows

as you watch the steam rise from the grazing horses’
backs. The eight ounces a day you’re allowed
when pregnant. The dinner party pick-me-up

you know will keep you awake all night. The first
time a new lover asks how you take your coffee,
promises to remember. The grounds and banana peels

you save for the roses of the widow next door.
The camping trip coffee, made with water filtered
from the river. The late-night project coffee you pray

will see you through to morning. The fellowship hall
coffee after a funeral, the cup you hope will be waiting
for you on the other side—

This poem hasn’t appeared in any of my books, but my dream is that someone somewhere will make it into a print or broadside with art, and it will hang in coffee houses and kitchens above coffeemakers. If you’re the person who can make this happen, please do! I’d love to see it.

Somehow, I had the good fortune to write these next two poems back-to-back during the challenge in 2015, and they appear in my latest book, Secure Your Own Mask. On April 8, the assignment was to write a “Dare” poem. I couldn’t think of anything more daring than being in a knife-throwing act in a circus.

When we were knife throwers

My favorite part of the act wasn’t the sparkle of red sequins,
the skimming of satin skirt flirting with thigh. I loved

the knife thwack, the shudder of pearl handle vibrating
when the blade landed true. I loved cartwheeling in space

when you spun the wheel, our love every day a game
of roulette, praying to always land on black but wearing

red just in case. I lived for you tying the blindfold, the whisper,
I love you as you fastened the manacles secure. Each second

a precarious balance between trust and chance.

The next day, April 9, the assignment was to write a “Work” poem, so I stuck with a circus theme:

Self-Portrait as Rosin Back Rider

The arch of my foot is perfectly shaped
to withers, to flank. I can stand in arabesque
at a canter. Sweep my back leg through,
backbend, walkover, and land astride.
The hardest part is the smile, the unnatural
strain on the face. It is the difficulty of beauty
pageant smile during athletics. The Paso Fino
beneath me flows like water. His walk
is molasses. I give him molasses mixed
with oats each night. He is sweet as sorghum.
The clop-clop of his hooves is my heartbeat.
Please pray the circus never separates us.
This is the ringmaster’s threat when the seats
are empty. A horse costs so much to feed,
and the lions are hungry. This why I cry
into the illustrated man’s indigo skin every night.

About Shaindel Beers

Shaindel Beers is the author of three full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2008) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (2018), winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize, a Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award, and finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, where she lives with her son Liam, her husband Matt, and a wealth of pets. She is also the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Animal Rescue

My position as liaison between the open-admissions city animal shelter and almost four hundred rescue partners skews mostly toward crisis management. An injured gannet arrives, stunned and unable to fly. A shedding python someone tried to mail to California, a neonate squirrel drinking Pedialyte from a syringe, a red dog with matted fur and a mammary tumor—my department rushes them to rehabbers or twenty-four-hour vet hospitals.

I do not think about poetry during my day job, unless coaxing moms away from their two-day-old kittens long enough to gently place the whole family in a crate counts as building a poem. I only write on my days off, in slices between laundry and the long walks I take to process the worst of what I’ve seen during the week. I struggled last year when it became impossible for writing to be my whole world, or even a large part of it. I thought in terms of survival and the next therapy session, the minutes when my ideation quieted as I led a dainty pit mix through the rain.

But reconnecting with animals, my first love, has driven me back to poetry. Caring about the survival of others helps me (most days) to see the value of my own.  

I wanted to share a few drafts from #NaPoWriMo that touch on those feelings:

Draft 1:

I watched a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body. I watched a man caress a swan with a beak too cracked for panic. I tell him you make me that swan, cut my panic with tenderness. My co-worker sends an email titled “11 Rats, can you help?” with a photo of white rodents arranged in a loose braid of a nausea. Imagine they climb my shoulders, pepper my movements with their lozenge eyes. I’m so unlike the Black Swan I saw last Halloween, cloaked in enough tulle to choke a bigot politely. My rats will make me that polite, crown my body with their tails in the air.

Draft 2 (Radical Revision):

I watch a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body.

I watch my friend hold a python   as close as she can to her chest, his shed flaking on her gloves.

The only children I love  stray far from what I could make: pinkie squirrels with dark nails,

small lizards in a cricket frenzy. I watch the accolades pile up  when a straight friend posts 

ultrasound pictures. Her fetus somersaults away from the camera.  My own uterus contracts,

the pain elegant and ribbed,  like the ribbon crack in that swan’s beak that made eating impossible.

Draft 3:

The further I get I am a gulper eel, I hope, a mouth like the black box in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I open this mouth and you fall inside. The further I get I am the Black Lodge, a row of tiles that kiss muddy feet, a thick curtain grazing your neck. I speak rewinding cassette, I speak marine snow as my eel body ribbons between water zones. It is effortless to be such a horror, and your clues dissolve like shrimp in my stomach acid, like a face blurred by a net of ink.

The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.
The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.

Tender and brutal, luminous and dark, raucous and gutting, Hanks’s poems are so alive that you can almost hear their heartbeat.—Foglifter

A truly incomparable collection, The Rise of Genderqueer constructs a voice with unmitigated and authentic yearning. Its poems soak ink into page from margin to margin, pressing into the reader’s assumptions about gender unmercifully. These poems demand, carry authentic wisdom, deliver keen argument, and disarm with sly wit. Wren Hanks challenges the status quo as neatly as a flower slid into the barrel of a rifle. These are utterly convincing prose forms studded with rhetoric he’s deftly remastered and sampled from our culture and conversations right now.

I’ll never be denatured, // I am nature,” Hanks’s poems insist, as the reader bears witness to a bigger world, light flooding into every corner, revealing what has always been true, vigorous, and expansive.

“We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary voice in these poems.”
—Roy G. Guzmán

The Ghost Incites a Genderqueer Pledge of Allegiance

Wren Hanks

Deny girl and the blood galaxies trailing it; there is a ghost in me who loves each egg, who won’t let me throw up when I’m seasick from my period.

There is a ghost in me riffing on fertility & chocolate almonds. We grow organs in pig ribs, ghost. Surely swelling and blossoming are not the same.

Swelling’s for an injured brain, a uterus drunk on the repetition of cells. I place my hand on my bound chest, pledge allegiance to the rashes and the scales, the fold and petal.

It’s a mess inside me, ghost.

Wren Hanks is the author of The Rise of Genderqueer, a 2018 selection for Brain Mill Press’s Mineral Point Poetry Series and a finalist for Gold Line Press’s chapbook contest. A 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow, his poetry has been a finalist for Indiana Review‘s 1/2 K Prize and anthologized in Best New Poets. His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Waxwing, Foglifter, and elsewhere. He is also the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press), an Elgin Award finalist. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a liaison for Animal Care Center of NY’s New Hope program, a proactive community initiative that finds homes for pets (and wildlife) in need. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets @suitofscales.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.